Interview: Alabama Shakes

As Alabama Shakes give the music industry quivers down the backbone, singer Brittany Howard tells Aidan Smith why the band is haunted by Led Zep

BRITTANY Howard, the singer in the most talked about new band in the world, is sitting in her hotel, waiting to go to a TV studio to let rip with that extraordinary voice, and thinking about how far Alabama Shakes have come in such a short space of time.

Not so long ago she was just another music freak in a town that barely had a record shop, and Led Zeppelin with their a-hooting and a-hollering frontman Robert Plant were just another of her favourite groups. Then she formed her own band and, like all combos just starting, the repertoire had to be fleshed out with covers, with Led Zep proving especially useful.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But right now the hype about Alabama Shakes can be quantified as a torrent, maybe even a twister. Truly, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. Famous fans are declaring themselves and demanding to be put on the guest-list, among them R Plant. “We got all self-conscious the night he came to see us,” says Howard. “We still do [Led Zep’s] How Many More Times, but we were like: ‘‘We can’t play his own song to him – that’s so cheesy!’ But he went home to bed before the end so we managed to fit it in.” Howard, with her corkscrew curls and epic voice, is 23. Plant, with his curls and voice, isn’t as young as he used to be.

Finally – she’s not done with the Zep connection yet – Alabama Shakes got to stay at Plant’s house in Austin, Texas, when they performed at last month’s South by Southwest festival. “Lovely place but we’re pretty sure it’s haunted,” adds Howard with a laugh. “I wouldn’t just say that, but sinks would turn on by themselves and there would be a knock at the door but no one there. Do you think the house could have been used for some weird satanic ritual?” Involving Led Zeppelin, with their keen interest in the work of Aleister Crowley? No chance.

The Shakes are due on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland and their blend of southern-fried rock and classic soul sounds very much the host’s thing, but Jools will have to join the queue. Fellow guest Jack White is a big fan, as are Adele and Arctic Monkey Alex Turner. And who was that burly fellow trying to hide behind his beard when the band filled an Irish pub in London to the brim the other night? Russell Crowe, no less.

“That was cool,” says Howard, “although he left before the end too, I guess before he got recognised, so we didn’t get the chance to meet him. But we’ve met Jack White, and Robert obviously. I’d like to be able to tell you that life for the Shakes is no different from what it was a little while back, that the only change is people know the words to our songs now and so can sing along. But I’m not going to pretend it’s not a whole lot of surreal.”

Howard loves live performance and it shows. “I feel free and also powerful, almost invincible. It’s like: ‘This is my world and you’re in it!’  ” But away from the stage she’s a much quieter presence: a gentle, polite southerner who doesn’t forget the compliment at the outset of your long, rambling question and thanks you for it.

So, every music fan’s heard of Athens, Georgia – but Athens, Alabama? “It’s kinda quiet, kinda slow, kinda nowhere,” says Howard of her home town, pop 22,000. It’s on the road between Birmingham and Nashville and the Shakes’ singer, in her previous life delivering the mail, thought she’d end up stopping there. This is what Hold On, the opening song on debut album Boys & Girls is about, the one that begins with Howard singing: “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old.”

I tell her I thought this maybe referred to some life-threatening event in her teens, but the lyric is simply drawing a distinction between two phases of her life. Before the age of 22, nothing of note. After, a chance to be someone. “I was writing about how unhappy I was with everything, the monotony of my job, the frustration of getting to sing then having to wait a whole month for the next gig – all that stuff,” says Howard, who stops short of describing the mundanity of Athens as being itself life-threatening. “That song is about me holding on, hoping that something better will happen, although it contradicts itself by saying that I’m tired and bored of waiting, which I was.”

Alabama Shakes have been dragged into a debate about authenticity in rock which is at its most intense around Lana Del Rey. Howard is aware of this and is surprised. “All my songs are real songs; they’re pretty well autobiographical. I think this whole thing is silly. Music is just music and people complicate it too much. And, really, I don’t know who we can possibly be except us.”

In any case, it’s difficult to accuse the band of being too calculating and knowing, or of contriving their retro-soul image, when they seem so naive. You may think they bear the signature sound of Muscle Shoals; bassist Zac Cockrell claims he only found out recently that the legendary studio was just down the road from Athens. Howard was similarly unaware James Brown hailed from the neighbouring state of Georgia, and rather than espouse the tradition of the Godfather of Soul and Otis Redding, she says her first experience of “truly fantastic singing” was The Great Gig In The Sky on Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, those white public schoolboys from England. Oh, and another thing: drummer Steve Johnson used to think Ozzy Osbourne was black.

Johnson has got a good excuse. Not only is he from Athens, which is isolating enough, but his old job was working in a nuclear power plant – “wearing the whole suit”. Before the band took off, he hadn’t been on an aeroplane. He had another job, in the town’s only music store, when he was recruited by Howard and Cockrell, who’d known each other since school. Guitarist Heath Fogg – great name – was pinched from another band and Howard describes her fellow Shakes as the only three proper musicians in the whole of Athens.

“It’s a real outdoorsy place,” she says. “You’d have fun by hiking through the woods or wading up the creek or canoeing and kayaking. There are no music venues. You’d have to go to Huntsville to find a venue but hardly any bands played there either.”

The Shakes’ apparent overnight success actually involved two years of slogging round what circuit there was. “We played a lot of bowling alleys,” continues Howard. “And hallways, basically. We’d be eye-to-eye with the audiences, which were of course tiny, and they’ve had to walk through us to get to the bathroom. The worst thing about those gigs was being completely ignored. The best nights, believe it or not, were when people would throw beer bottles at us. They were throwing them out of love.”

Right now it’s just praise that is being hurled Alabama Shakes’ way. I wish the band good luck and hope they survive the twister. Howard thanks me once again and goes off to deliver another belting performance. «

• Boys & Girls is out now on Rough Trade. Alabama Shakes play King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow on 9 May